When it was originally released for the PlayStation 2 in Japan in December 2001, K-1 World Grand Prix met with a fair amount of critical acclaim. That praise has sparked some interest in the game here in America, and Konami has decided to bring the game to the States this July.
For the uninitiated, K-1 is basically kickboxing with fewer rules. Unlike in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, though, fighters try to stay on their feet, as there is no grappling, except for clinches, and you are only allowed to throw punches and kicks. The game features more than 20 real-life K-1 fighters from all over the globe, including Ernesto Hoost, Mike Bernardo, and Jorgen Kruth. You can play as any of the fighters in several different modes, including exhibition, tournament, revival, and career. The exhibition mode allows you to simply jump into a match against a CPU-controlled opponent or a second player. The tournament mode enters you in a K-1 tournament. The revival mode challenges you to accomplish specific goals, like knocking your opponent out with a body shot before the round ends, and some of these goals are based on real-life scenarios from past K-1 fights. Finally, the career mode lets you try to qualify for a K-1 tournament with several preliminary fights. In between each of the fights, you can use points earned in the bouts to improve your fighter's skills. The training sessions offered include speed and target-recognition exercises that are modeled after real-life K-1 exercises, such as hitting pads in the specific sequence indicated by your trainer.
The buttons on the face of the PS2 controller control your fighter's punches and kicks. Each button controls a limb, which makes it easy to string real-life combinations together. You can also modify these punches and kicks by holding the analog stick in a specific direction when you press one of the attack buttons. This system allows you to perform just about any move you might see in a real-life K-1 fight. The gameplay is fast-paced, but it allows you to set your shots up and measure opponents for big kicks and heavy punches.
There is a bit of strategy that goes into attacking your opponents, since the game accounts for cumulative damage. For instance, if you continually attack a specific region of your opponent's body, you can disable him. To help you do this, K-1 provides a small onscreen icon for each one of the three damage spots: head, body, and legs. If you repeatedly attack one of these specific regions and your opponent fails to block properly, the appropriate icon will begin changing color, indicating that your strikes are damaging that specific part of your opponent's body. When the color of the icon changes from green to yellow, you know you're doing damage, and when it changes to red, you're close to causing a severe problem for your opponent. For instance, continually kicking your opponent in the legs will eventually cause him to simply fall to the floor. Once you've softened up a particular region, you can often land a really good kick or punch there that'll instantly send your opponent to the floor for a few seconds or for good. In between rounds, you can choose what type of strategy you'd like to employ--whether you want to be defensive or go for a knockout. This choice of strategy affects the attributes of your fighter a bit to help you either conserve energy or add additional firepower to your blows.
In terms of visuals, the developers of K-1 World Grand Prix are focusing on creating fighter models that are realistic in movement and appearance. The animations for punching, kicking, blocking, and general movement are fairly convincing, especially the animations used when a fighter is struck with a heavy blow and is momentarily stunned. In fact, if you time your punches and kicks right, you can actually take advantage of these momentary lapses in defense and hit your opponent while he is staggering backward. The animations used when a fighter gets blasted by a big shot and collapses to the canvas are also extremely satisfying. The models of the fighters aren't the most detailed and articulated we've seen on the PlayStation 2, but they do look like their real-life counterparts.
While we've been impressed with the early version of K-1 World Grand Prix we received, we'll have to reserve judgment until we receive a final build of the game. It's fair to say, though, that fans of K-1 will probably not be disappointed when they get their hands on K-1 World Grand Prix when it ships this July.